Remembering LaVerne Sandgren

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Jake Magee
Saturday, August 9, 2014

JANESVILLE--It wouldn't be a stretch to say LaVerne Sandgren worked at least two full-time jobs simultaneously for most of her life.

She was a pastor's wife, a mother to three boys and a social worker, and through it all, she never failed to show her generosity and kindness to everyone she met.

LaVerne, 92, died July 30 at Cedar Crest in Janesville. She is survived by her children, eight grandchildren, extended family members and countless friends.

She leaves behind a legacy of selflessness and compassion.

LaVerne graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1944 from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Her passion for people led her to work for Lutheran Social Services in Iowa before she met her future husband, the Rev. Ralph Sandgren.

While married and raising three boys, LaVerne became immersed in her church, as is the custom of pastor's wives.

“At all times, all the programs that the church had going on, she was very aware and very involved,” son David Sandgren said.

Most of Ralph's churches were new congregations that required a lot of work--work that LaVerne was more than willing to do. She hosted new membership meetings in her home, helped at potlucks, organized social events, helped the youth group and taught confirmation classes, among other things.

“Whatever various tasks needed to be done at smaller churches … she was really involved with that and helping others that were doing those tasks,” eldest son Paul Sandgren said. “She did everything she could to help others.”

“It was very much a full-time job,” David said.

The Sandgrens moved to Janesville in October 1970 when Ralph became pastor at St. Peter's Lutheran Church.

After her sons left home, Sandgren devoted much of her time to ECHO, an acronym for Everyone Cooperating to Help Others, a perfect embodiment of what LaVerne stood for. The church-sponsored charity hired her in the mid-1970s as its first coordinator.

What was supposed to be a part-time, three-month position turned into a full-time role she held for 15 years. Paul said LaVerne helped turn ECHO from a small organization to the large charity it is now.

Besides caring for ECHO's needy patrons, LaVerne brought churches of different denominations together, helped when ECHO changed locations and started procedures so the charity could run efficiently, David said.

“One of the things she was so good at was recognizing the circumstances that a family was in and being able to identify what their real needs were,” he said.

LaVerne didn't simply provide the material things that struggling families needed; she went deeper, caring for individuals on a personal level. As a result, many of these less fortunate people later returned to ECHO to donate or volunteer when they were back on their feet, David said.

“She just really … felt that everybody deserves a hand if they needed it—not just a hand out but a hand up,” said her the youngest son, Daniel Sandgren.

“Sometimes it's hard … but that's offset by the happiness of seeing the community respond, knowing that people really care about what ECHO is doing,” LaVerne told The Gazette in a 1985 article.

In 1986, LaVerne received the YWCA's Women of Distinction Award primarily for her work with ECHO. LaVerne sometimes referred women who used ECHO to the YWCA shelter, Daniel said.

But that's not the full extent of her giving lifestyle.

LaVerne volunteered for The Literacy Connection, formerly known as The Janesville Literacy Council. The organization helps teach adults and children how to read, write and speak English.

LaVerne went to area schools to tutor children and later helped rally volunteers and even served on its board of directors. She received a Certificate of Appreciation from The Literacy Connection for her efforts.

The connections that Sandgren made with others throughout her life are deep and immeasurable.

During a family camping trip, LaVerne and her husband spent time and money helping a couple stranded far from home due to car troubles, Paul said.

“My mom and dad just showed them a lot of generosity and caring, and that wasn't out of character for both of them,” Daniel said.

Daniel remembered a time he played catch with a Vietnam veteran after LaVerne invited the man into her home because he couldn't keep a job due to his post-traumatic stress disorder.

“She was always willing to open up our house to just about anybody,” he said.

David said his mother kept friendships she made in college and even high school late into her life. He and his brothers used to tease her for the “literally hundreds” of Christmas cards she'd send and receive during the holidays, he said.

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